Instagram brings its own ‘portrait mode’ to the app; though Android compatibility is limited
Facebook-owned Instagram has decided to throw it’s hat into the ‘Portrait Mode’ game, though really this could be looked at as more of a ‘toe dipping’ than a full-on dive. The reason I say this is because the new feature, which allows users to take ‘portrait mode’ images with computer-generated bokeh, is only available on devices which already have a portrait mode built into their system cameras. So, in essence, unlike other apps which have attempted to mimic the portrait mode effect and bring it to devices without the feature built in already, Instagram has instead chosen to ease into the idea by standing on the shoulders of the flagship level phones that already support the feature (the iPhone 6s, SE, and non-plus 7/8 being a few exceptions).
The smart piece of this play is that it means the results of the app should be better (than on apps not limited to flagship portrait-mode compatible devices), since the app is utilizing phones with the feature already built in, and thus already capable of quality portrait mode images. The downside is that a large number of users, both on iOS (particularly on older phones) and to a much greater extent on Android, are not able to take advantage of the feature. That said, we wanted to give this new focus functionality a go and so here are our quick, hands-on opinions of the new Instagram feature.
This hands-on functionality was tested utilizing a [amazon_textlink asin=’B079JVGQQ6′ text=’Google Pixel 2 XL’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’thephobl-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’b56b912a-3d00-11e8-a7ab-67a27d8de8bd’], one of the top phones on the market currently in terms of the camera and it’s portrait mode functionality. We will be comparing the results of Instagram’s Focus feature to the results of images taken utilizing the Pixel 2 XL’s own built-in portrait mode functionality. Ready? Let’s get into it…
Instagram Focus: Hands-on with Instagram’s new portrait mode
So, first thing’s first; accessing the new Focus mode in Instagram is really easy. You open the camera mode and scroll to the right and if your phone is compatible with it you will see ‘Focus’ in between the Superzoom and Rewind modes. It is extremely easy to use once you have selected it: you simply point the camera at your desired target, be that you or someone else, and you wait for Instagram to detect a face. Assuming the software successfully detects the face, it will begin to apply the computer-generated blur or ‘CG Bokeh’ and you can take the shot. Once you get one you are happy with you can then share the image to your Instagram story or feed, and/or save the image to your device as you would with any other image you take with Instagram.
In terms of the ‘portrait-mode’ experience that you get on the Google Pixel 2 XL, the Instagram implementation has the advantage of being able to show you the CG Bokeh live as you are composing the shot. This could be really helpful when trying to take an image when the background may be difficult for the system to accurately distinguish. In the built-in portrait mode on the Pixel, you are unable to preview the bokeh effect and you must actually take the shot and wait a moment for the phone generated version with the CG Bokeh applied to appear.
But honestly, in my experience, that is where the ‘wins’ for Instagram’s Focus feature end. In almost every other way, by my experience on the Google Pixel 2 XL, the phone’s built-in portrait mode was better in terms of image quality and the look of the CG Bokeh. That was my opinion after viewing the test images I took, but you have a look for yourself…
As you can see in the example above, the most obvious difference you will see right off the batt is the aspect ratio difference between the two. Since in Instagram you are limited to capturing your shot in Instagram’s preferred ‘Stories’ ratio, that is what gets saved to your device. The Pixel, on the other hand, gives you a full portrait oriented image. You will also notice the Instagram bokeh, in this shot at least, is less intense than the Google generated image. However, the Google edge detection is much cleaner and more accurate. I tend to prefer the Google shot in this case, but if you are a fan of a less intense bokeh look you may prefer the Instagram shot here.
In this example, you can see a much more pronounced difference between the two images. The Google generated image has much better dynamic range and edge detection, while the Instagram shot has much darker shadows and struggled with the edge detection on the right side of my face (my right, your left), particularly right around my ear and jawline. Here the bokeh is again less pronounced on the Instagram shot, but the difference isn’t quite as extreme as in the first example.
This time I took the phone indoors and similar to the first example, the quality of the two shots is much closer, though again, the Instagram image struggled with the edge detection. I will say indoors, with the fairly even diffused window lighting, the Instagram camera fared much better than outdoors. It also got the color balance of my pasty white pacific northwest skin much more accurately than the Google generated image, which for some reason skewed my skin more into the reds/magenta. Still, skin tone aside, I prefer the Google rendering personally.
You may feel differently, which is why I have the examples here for you to see for yourself. I don’t think anyone, Instagram included, is suggesting that you replace the built-in portrait mode feature on your camera with the Instagram Focus feature. This addition, especially on the iPhones that don’t have a portrait mode, is more about convenience within Instagram itself, allowing you to easily capture a portrait mode shot within Instagram itself; eliminating (or so they hope) the need to exit the app in order to capture this sort of shot. In that sort of use case, depending on the environment and lighting conditions, it may work sufficiently.
That said, for me, unless I am already in Instagram for some reason, I am still going to be more likely to open up the Pixel 2 XL’s camera app to utilize the feature. I prefer the look, and I would also prefer the framing more, giving me more to work with if I wanted to edit the image before posting it to Instagram.
If you are interested in learning more about Instagram’s new Focus feature you can get all of the details on their blog post announcing the feature.